Leaving Las Vegas: Zion National Park is Closer Than You Think

DSCN0956 (1280x960)Written and Photos by Jake Conlee

Informer Media Group

I have said in the past, one of my favorite things about living in Las Vegas is leaving it. Not leaving it in the sense that I dislike this city, but the fact that most of Las Vegas’ true wealth and value lies in the surrounding areas. In Southern Nevada, there are so many geological, geographical and natural wonders, just beyond the city limits. Granted, my reach can be a bit absurd; but if you are willing to spend a few hours driving to be so many times removed from the hustle and bustle of the Urban Sprawl, you will be greatly rewarded. At least once every couple of months, my family and I make our way towards Southern Utah to find a new and exciting way to escape the madness of Las Vegas.

Did you know??? Las Vegas has a higher concentration of US National Parks & Monuments in it’s vicinity than any other major metropolitan area in the country? That’s right, from Death Valley, Great Basin, the Grand Canyon, Bryce Canyon, Vermillion Cliffs, Joshua Tree, Zion National Park, among a half dozen others, our natural wealth far exceeds any reaches of monetary wealth. Before an ado is any furthered, I will share with you: Zion National Park. I live on the Southern end of the Las Vegas Strip, so this should be a proper estimate for those visiting Zion National Park. It’s 167 miles to Zion’s entrance.

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Virgin Mountains near Mesquite

Virgin Mountains near Mesquite

At the north end of a beautiful artists’ colony, Springdale, Zion welcomes those weary and not-so-weary travelers with pink, scarlet, orange and whitewashed sandstone formations. Following the path of Virgin River (the same Virgin River that is the namesake for many things Mesquite), Zion Canyon itself is so picturesque, that you could spend an entire day on the valley floor, and still not capture the essence of what the entire park has to offer. For those that are familiar with our National Park System, then you know that less than 10% is available for those limited to paved roads. Zion National Park is no exception. What it can offer; however, is enough paved access to give visitors three completely different Zion National Park experiences, with three completely different ecosystems.

One the very western portion of the park, before you arrive in Springdale, there is the Kolob Reservoir and Kolob Plateau, which sits at an elevation of over 8000 feet above sea level. This portion of the park occupies the mountainous North-central area, making up the ridge between the main body of the park and Kolob Canyons, near Cedar City. Kolob Plateau is hit and miss this time of year, however; the road beyond Hop Valley isn’t plowed, so you may encounter snow on the roadway, or even feet of snow. This area is lightly traveled, so you won’t be likely to encounter too many tourists.

1361765922724The main entrance of the park sits at the opening of Zion Canyon itself. Following the Zion Canyon Scenic drive, you will snake your way up the canyon, paralleling the Virgin River. As you pass Zion Lodge, you will drive through open meadows, and almost guaranteed to encounter many deer. In every single visit that we have made to the park in the past year and a half, we have yet to NOT see a herd of deer, grazing on the valley floor. The canyon itself, the driveable portion, anyways is about 8 miles long, and along the way, there are many trailheads which explore fascinating and beautiful landmarks; Weeping Rock, Emerald Pools and The Subway, among hundreds others. Some incredible vantage points of hoo doos and  towering sandstone cliffs, boasting foreboding names: The Altair of Sacrifice, Mountain of Mystery, Great White Throne and the Court of Patriarchs, highlights some of the best and memorable names of these towering rock massifs; can be seen at any portion throughout the scenic drive. All of these peaks are surrounding one of the most impressive natural amphitheaters that I have ever had the pleasure of witnessing in person. If you are limited in time that you have in the park, this is the part that I highly recommend to maximize your time in Zion National Park.

Zion-Mt Carmel Highway

Zion-Mt Carmel Highway

If you continue past the Zion Canyon Scenic Drive, the road rapidly gains elevation on a very windy and steep road, called the Zion-Mt Carmel Highway. This road quickly gains over 1000 feet in elevation, taking you to the Zion-Mt Carmel Tunnels. Completed in 1930, it is carved directly into the canyon walls, and when it was built, it was the longest tunnel of it’s type in the United States. Having taken 10 years to finish, it was inducted on July 4, 1930 and was designed as a main thoroughfare linking Zion National Park, and the closely associated Bryce Canyon National Park. This road, culminating at Mt Carmel Junction (home of the very charming  Thunderbird Lodge), is also a great point to continue your travels to Grand Staircase- Escalante, Cedar Breaks and Vermillion Cliffs National Monuments, North Rim of Grand Canyon National Park, Capitol Reef, Arches and Canyonlands National Parks. As you can see, this is an incredible position and opportunity to extend your treasure hunt of the National Park Systems and the wealth of Nature.

This is my heartfelt homage to the wonderful landscape of Zion National Park, and to tout it’s vicinity to our great city. There are so many fantastic things that Las Vegas has to offer, but; sometimes, it’s nice to just escape it all for a day.

Jake ConleeJake Conlee is a California native that has been blessed with the gift of restlessness. With an undying fervor and passion for what he does not yet know, life is a constant adventure. Truly fearless in implementation of wandering down less trafficked roads, this has led to many ordinary days turning into a treasure hunt. Emblazoned on his arm, the self photographed sign of this incredible City of Sin. He loves this city so much, a mural of Las Vegas is currently under development on his arms. If you need to know about anything in Las Vegas, if he doesn’t know the answer, he will find out for you. He loves Las Vegas, the good, the bad, but mostly the nostalgic. He’s also a sucker for a good hunk of meat. He is, most of all, a father of two girls, 12-year-old “Vern” and 2-year-old “Chuck”


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